Naive Expectations: Fieldwork in Hawai’i

Second story in our Summer 2017 Blog Series! Enjoy!

Contributed by Catherine Hudson

We’re doing fieldwork in Hawaaaaaiiii! We’re doing field work in Hawaaaaiii,” I sang out as we began to rig up the kayak for our adventure. It was a beautiful day in paradise complete with a bright sun overhead, majestic mountains rising up in the distance, and the faint sound of small waves lapping at the shore. And there I was, bouncing around with boundless energy as I scrambled back and forth between a toolbox and the kayak, helping out as much as I could. It was my very first day of fieldwork ever, and I couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to perform groundwater research along the coast of O’ahu. Although I knew that the research would involve hard work, I was also convinced I would love every moment of it.

Oh, how fast my naive expectations were checked by reality.

My coworker Trista had been planning this trip to gather data for their project for over a week, constantly checking to make sure that nothing would be forgotten. They had enlisted the help of our four-person lab group, and I had gladly accepted. This experience would be a good test for my own fieldwork scheduled to take place several weeks later on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, data collection that would involve even more preparation due to the remote location of my field site.

For this day’s field work, Trista had developed the following plan: We would put all of our non-waterproof field gear in the kayak, which we would then push along the shoreline. As we moved forward, the instruments would measure radon concentrations in the water. Radon is not present in seawater; it’s only found in groundwater that flows below ground to the ocean, so my coworker could later identify the places along the shore where groundwater was entering the ocean based on the concentration of radon we measured.

From left to right: Eric Welch, Catherine Hudson, and Trista McKenzie. Photo credit to Henrietta Dulai.

Once the kayak was all rigged up with the instruments, the time came for us to start pushing it through the water. As I dipped my toes in, I felt the immediate happiness that comes from swimming in the ocean. It was only after I took a few more steps that I hit mud. And this wasn’t the kind of mud that leaves small spots on your back after you bike through it. This is the kind of mud that sucks you down and begs you to become one with it. The mud covered my shoes, then climbed up my ankles to my calves. So much for my easy walk along the shore; this would be a slog.

The four of us tried to find a good rhythm, but despite our attempts it was more of a “high knees” walk with occasional stumbles and stops when the mud decided to claim a shoe for its own. We rounded the first point and were relieved when the water became shallower. Unfortunately, the relief didn’t last for long.

With all the mud in the water, everything was murky. As we continued walking, I began to notice that my legs were unusually itchy. My first thought was that I had razor burn after shaving my legs that morning. But as I continued to walk, the itching only got worse. My next thought was that the silt was just irritating them, so I scratched a little and tried my best to ignore the growing itch. But the further we walked, the worse the itch got until finally I saw more than felt the cause. A small blue ribbon was tangled in a tree near the shore. As I looked more closely, the ribbon came into focus and I realized I was looking at a Portuguese Man-o’-War. As we took a break to collect water samples, I lifted my legs up one at a time and assessed the damage. Sure enough, I had jellyfish stings all up and down them. And while the itching had luckily stopped and it appeared that we had left the jellyfish behind, the cuts were still trickling a little blood.

I was trying to ignore the cuts on my legs when I stumbled into my first boulder. One after the other, all four of us encountered huge rocks under the water, further adding to our cuts and bruises. Some rocks were simple enough to walk around, while others were large enough to climb over. In order to minimize the damage, we turned the kayak and began walking single file, the front person calling out when they found a rock in our path.

Finally we rounded another corner and the end was in sight! The slog turned into a desperate half-run, all of us just hoping to reach the finish line. But there was one more obstacle no one saw: an underwater tree branch. Trista hit it the hardest, slashing her knees and palm while the rest of us got away cleanly. But finally (finally!) we reached the boat ramp that was our destination. Trista had debated continuing on after a short break, but after everything we had gone through we were weary warriors ready to be finished. And the need to clean our cuts and stings only further confirmed our need to stop for the day.

We unpacked everything, loaded the car, and drove back to the University of Hawai’i. I looked back over my shoulder at the way we had come, the water and sky still framing the beautiful mountains and the sun sparkling on where we had walked. But now I was a little more savvy as to what lay beneath that water, and even though my naive expectations had been crushed, I was still thankful that I’d have a story for years to come about my first day of fieldwork.


Catherine has a bachelor’s degree in environmental geology from Louisiana State University. She is currently a part of the graduate program in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she is studying submarine groundwater discharge (SGD) on the Kona coast of the Big Island.

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